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"For God's sake, my dear general," writes Lee to Washington, “urge the Congress to furnish me with a thousand cavalry. With a thousand cavalry I could insure the safety of these Southern provinces; and without cavalry I can answer for nothing. From want of this species of troops we had infallibly lost this capital, but the dilatoriness and stupidity of the enemy saved us.”
The tidings of this signal repulse of the enemy came most opportunely to Washington, when he was apprehending an attack upon New York. He writes in a familiar vein to Schuyler on the subject. "Sir Peter Parker and his fleet got a severe drubbing in an attack upon our works on Sullivan's Island, just by Charleston, in South Carolina; a part of their troops at the same time, in attempting to land, were repulsed." He assumed a different tone in announcing it to the army in a general order of the 21st July. "This generous example of our troops under the like circumstances with us, the general hopes, will animate every officer and soldier to imitate, and even outdo them, when the enemy shall make the same attempt on us. With such a bright example before us of what can be done by brave men fighting in defense of their country, we shall be loaded with a double share of shame and infamy if we do not acquit ourselves with courage, and manifest a determined resolution to conquer or die."
Putnam's Military Projects-Chevaux-de-frise at Fort Washington -Meditated Attack on Staten Island-Arrival of Ships-Hessian Re-enforcements-Scotch Highlanders-Sir Henry Clinton and Lord Cornwallis-Putnam's Obstructions of the Hudson-The "Phoenix" and "Rose" attacked by Row Galleys at Tarrytown-General Order of Washington on the subject of Sectional Jealousies-Profane Swearing prohibited in the Camp -Preparations against Attack-Levies of Yeomanry-George Clinton in Command of the Levies along the Hudson-Alarms of the People of New York-Benevolent Sympathy of Washington-The "Phoenix" Grappled by a Fire-Ship-The Ships Evacuate the Hudson
GENERAL PUTNAM, besides his bravery in the field, was somewhat of a mechanical projector. The batteries at Fort Washington had proved ineffectual in opposing the passage of hostile ships up the Hudson. He was now engaged on a plan for obstructing the channel opposite the fort, so as to prevent the passing of any more ships. A letter from him to General Gates (July 26th) explains his project. "We are preparing chevaux-de-frise, at which we make great dispatch by the help of ships, which are to be sunk-a scheme of mine which you may be assured is very simple; a plan of which I send you. The two ships' sterns lie toward each other, about seventy feet apart. Three large logs, which reach from ship to ship, are fastened to them. The two ships and logs stop the river two hundred and eighty feet. The ships are to be sunk, and when hauled down on one side the pricks will be raised to a proper height, and they must inevitably stop the river, if the enemy will let us sink them."
It so happened that one Ephraim Anderson, adjutant to
the second Jersey battalion, had recently submitted a project to Congress for destroying the enemy's fleet in the harbor of New York. He had attempted an enterprise of the kind against the British ships in the harbor of Quebec during the siege, and, according to his own account, would have succeeded, had not the enemy discovered his intentions and stretched a cable across the mouth of the harbor, and had he not accidentally been much burned.
His scheme was favorably entertained by Congress, and Washington, by a letter dated July 10th, was instructed to aid him in carrying it into effect. Anderson, accordingly, was soon at work at New York constructing fire-ships, with which the fleet was to be attacked. Simultaneous with the attack, a descent was to be made on the British camp on Staten Island, from the nearest point of the Jersey shore, by troops from Mercer's flying camp, and by others stationed at Bergen under Major Knowlton, Putnam's favorite officer for daring enterprises.
Putnam entered into the scheme as zealously as if it had been his own. Indeed by the tenor of his letter to Gates, already quoted, he seemed almost to consider it so. enemy's fleet," writes he, "now lies in the bay, close under Staten Island. Their troops possess no land here but the island. Is it not strange that those invincible troops, who were to lay waste all this country with their fleets and army, are so fond of islands and peninsulas, and dare not put their feet on the main? But I hope, by the blessing of God, and good friends, we shall pay them a visit on their island. For that end we are preparing fourteen fire-ships, to go into their fleet, some of which are ready charged and fitted to sail, and I hope soon to have them all fixed.'
Anderson, also, on the 31st July, writes from New York
to the President of Congress: "I have been for some time past very assiduous in the preparation of fire-ships. Two are already complete, and hauled off into the stream; two more will be off to-morrow, and the residue in a very short time. In my next, I hope to give you a particular account of a general conflagration, as everything in my power shall be exerted for the demolition of the enemy's fleet. I expect to take an active part, and be an instrument for that purpose. I am determined (God willing) to make a conspicuous figure among them, by being a 'burning and shining light,' and thereby serve my country, and have the honor of meeting the approbation of Congress."*
Projectors are subject to disappointments. It was impossible to construct a sufficient number of fire-ships and galleys in time. The flying camp, too, recruited but slowly, and scarcely exceeded three thousand men; the combined attack by fire and sword had therefore to be given up, and the "burning and shining light" again failed of conflagration.
Still, a partial night attack on the Staten Island encampment was concerted by Mercer and Knowlton, and twice attempted. On one occasion they were prevented from crossing the strait by tempestuous weather, on another by deficiency of boats.
In the course of a few days arrived a hundred sail, with large re-enforcements, among which were one thousand Hessians, and as many more were reported to be on the way. The troops were disembarked on Staten Island, and fortifications thrown up on some of the most commanding hills.
All projects of attack upon the enemy were now out of the question. Indeed, some of Washington's ablest advisers
* Am. Archives, 4th Series, i. 155.
questioned the policy of remaining in New York, where they might be entrapped as the British had been in Boston. Reed, the adjutant-general, observed that, as the communication by the Hudson was interrupted, there was nothing now to keep them at New York but a mere point of honor; in the meantime, they endangered the loss of the army and its military stores. Why should they risk so much in defending a city while the greater part of its inhabitants were plotting their destruction? His advice was, that, when they could defend the city no longer, they should evacuate and burn it, and retire from Manhattan Island; should avoid any general action, or indeed any action, unless in view of great advantages; and should make it a war of posts.
During the latter part of July and the early part of August, ships of war with their tenders continued to arrive, and Scotch Highlanders, Hessians, and other troops, to be landed on Staten Island. At the beginning of August, the squadron with Sir Henry Clinton, recently repulsed at Charleston, anchored in the bay. "His coming," writes Colonel Reed, "was as unexpected as if he had dropped from the clouds." He was accompanied by Lord Cornwallis, and brought three thousand troops.
In the meantime, Putnam's contrivances for obstructing the channel had reached their destined place. A letter dated Fort Washington, August 3d, says: "Four ships, chained and boomed, with a number of amazing large chevaux-defrise, were sunk close by the fort under command of General Mifflin, which fort mounts thirty-two pieces of heavy cannon. We are thoroughly sanguine that they [the ships up the river] never will be able to join the British fleet, nor assistance from the fleet be afforded to them; so that we may set them down as our own."